The Spy in Black (1939)

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Aka U-Boat 29. Who’d be a U-boat captain? A German submarine under the command of Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt) is sent to Hoy in the Orkney Islands in 1917 in order to determine British fleet movements around Scapa Flow where he is supposedly helped by The School Teacher (Valerie Hobson) assisted by disgraced British Naval Lt. Ashington (Sebastian Shaw).  However they are double agents who actually want Hardt to bring together many U-boats for the attack on the Grand Fleet and then have a destroyer flotilla wipe out the U-boats with depth charges. The arrival of the original schoolteacher’s fiancé (Cyril Raymond) complicates matters …What an idea, putting a motorbike in a submarine. From Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, brought together for the first time by Alexander Korda, armed with a scenario by Roland Pertwee (Jon’s dad) adapted from Joseph Storer Clouston’s novel, and the best German ever, Conrad Veidt (loved him since Terry Wogan used to play his Lighthouse song at the crack of doom), this World War One tale has all the best aspects of that new collaboration – an exciting premise, taut plotting, attractive characters and a great setting, these islands off Scotland. The early kidnapping of schoolteacher Anne Burnett (June Duprez) in a scene reminiscent of The Lady Vanishes, Hobson as a sort of femme fatale, the sight of Veidt with his big eyes and goggles and motorsickle leathers among the sheep, the fog shrouding night time action, witty banter, romantic betrayal, spy and counter-spy, memorable shot after memorable shot – all combine to make this much more than a propaganda film – it was released on the eve of World War Two (in August 1939). It’s a hugely entertaining and well-turned thriller that’s just bursting with atmosphere and irony because who wouldn’t begrudge Veidt? And yet, and yet … You almost persuade me to become a British subject

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Liz & Dick (2012) (TVM)

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He treated me like a queen and I loved his voice. God how I loved his voice.  Anyone who knows anything about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton knows one thing above all else – they were never called Liz and Dick. Nobody would have dared. That aside, this is a gloriously kitschy exercise in flashback framed by an interview with them (that never happened in reality and culled from the many letters and notes Burton wrote to Taylor) in which they discuss their fatal attraction on the set of Cleopatra in 1962 , their subsequent adulterous relationship despite having children in their respective marriages, living together and making The VIPs and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf  (Taylor insisted), tricky divorces, their wedding, their peripatetic lifestyle and decision to live on a boat because of the living expenses of two families travelling from set to set and regular house moves in the middle of a never-ending international paparazzi hunt.  It’s all here, with the immensely welcome if odd presence of the great Theresa Russell as Taylor’s mother Sara. Surely some mistake. Punctuated by fabulous jewellery, newspaper headlines, make-ups and bust-ups, heavy drinking, Taylor’s weight gain, Burton’s jealousy of her Academy Awards, the need to make films to solve financial problems and finally Burton’s alleged affair with Nathalie Delon which drove Taylor to a supposed assignation with Aristotle Onassis – at the centre of the chaos and tantrums is a couple whose sexual attraction to one another is overwhelming and quite incomprehensible to other people (a truism for most couples – the only thing these icons ever shared with mere mortals). What we have outside of the relationship is the nature of celebrity as it simply didn’t exist prior to this scandalous duo whose newsworthy antics even attracted the ire of the Vatican (‘erotic vagrancy’). Hello Lumpy! Lohan was roundly criticised for her portrayal and it’s true she doesn’t actually sound, look or move like Taylor but boy does she revel in the lines, like, Elizabeth wants to play. Strangely, she convinces more as the older Taylor with the frightwig and makeup. Bowler is adequate as Burton (even without the disproportionately large head) and underplays him quite well, but what is essential is what surrounds them – glamour, beauty, incredible locations. They literally had a dream of a life. What is clear in this evocation of the Battling Burtons is their need for constant reassurance and the one-upmanship resulting from their shared drive to always do better to keep on an even keel. I will love you even if you get as fat as a hippo. Burton’s descent into full-blown alcoholism upon the death of his brother Ifor (David Hunt) following a desperate fall in their home in Switzerland is the pivot to the real conclusion of the famous relationship, a second short-lived marriage following one of Taylor’s serious illnesses notwithstanding. There are a lot of books about them but if you want to see something as crazy, turbulent and tragic as they seem to have been, watch this. It’s wonderfully made, completely daft and utterly compelling. Written by Christopher Monger and directed by Lloyd Kramer. I want more

 

Harper (1966)

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Why so fast, Harper? You trying to impress me? Struggling private eye Lew Harper (Paul Newman) takes a simple missing-person case that quickly spirals into something much more complex. Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall), recently paralysed in a horse-riding accident, wants Harper to find her missing oil baron husband Ralph, but her tempestuous teenage stepdaughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) thinks Mrs. Sampson knows more than she’s letting on… The bottom is loaded with nice people, Albert. Only cream and bastards rise. Brilliantly adapted by William Goldman from Ross Macdonald’s 1949 mystery The Moving Target featuring private eye Archer, renamed here because Newman believed the letter ‘H’ to be lucky following Hud and The Hustler. With that team you know it’s filled with zingers, like, Kinky is British for weird. Macdonald’s roots in the post-war noir world are called up in the casting of Bacall, who reminds us that it was The Big Sleep, among other films based on books by the great Raymond Chandler, that brought this style into being. Of course Macdonald’s own interpretation is consciously more mythical than the prototypical Chandler’s, with allusions to Greek tragedy in its familial iterations but it continues in that vein of a ferociously stylish, ironic, delightfully cool appraisal of California’s upper class denizens and their intractable problems. Newman is perfectly cast as a kind of wandering conscience with problems of his own, while Janet Leigh as his ex-wife, Robert Wagner as a playboy, Julie Harris as a junkie musician, Shelley Winters as a faded movie star, Robert Webber as her criminal husband and Albert Hill as a lovelorn lawyer, all add wonderful details to this portrait of a social clique. A flavoursome, perfectly pitched entertainment with lovely widescreen cinematography by Conrad Hall and oh so wittily and precisely staged by director Jack Smight, underscored by the smooth Sixties jazz orchestrations of Johnny Mandel with an original song by Dory and Andre Previn. I used to be a sheriff ’til I passed my literacy test

The Best of Everything (1959)

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Here’s to men. Bless their clean-cut faces and dirty little minds! 1950s Manhattan:  three young women meet in the typing pool at Fabian Publishing and later share a home together: glamorous Gregg Adams (Suzy Parker) is an aspiring actress secretly yearning for domesticity whose director David Savage (Louis Jourdan) is using her; naive country girl April Morrison (Diane Baker) is left pregnant and alone by callous playboy Dexter Key (Robert Evans); and ambitious Radcliffe graduate Caroline Bender (Hope Lange) finds solace in the arms of editor Mike Rice (Stephen Boyd) while her fiancé is abroad. Together the three contend with unwise entanglements, office politics and the threat that their dreams for a fulfilling career will be cut short by marriage and children, while their romantic obsessions attract tragedy and the office is ruled with an iron fist by bitter chief editor Amanda Farrow (Joan Crawford) ...What is it about women like us that make you hold us so cheaply? Aren’t we the special ones from the best homes and the best colleges? I know the world outside isn’t full of rainbows and happy endings, but to you, aren’t we even decent?  Rona Jaffe’s1958 novel was an electrifying publishing event – a book by a woman about women trying to make it with explosive stories of sex and illegitimate pregnancy, featuring a spectrum of female experience in the workplace. Its influence is all over the presentation of corporate NYC in Mad Men and its cast represents a showcase for stars new and old in an era just before Women’s Lib. Edith R. Sommer and Mann Rubin’s adaptation fillets the material yet the throughline of forging your way through a chauvinistic office and patriarchal world retains its edge and raw emotion. Crawford supposedly made some script revisions but whether they were retained in the released film (as opposed to the tantalising trailer) is up for debate. She sure gets the lion’s share of tough lines as office witch Amanda Farrow who at heart is just a lonely disappointed older woman albeit with a hell of a list. She is the benchmark for female achievement in a drama about the perils of settling for less and the sacrifices you have to make to succeed. She has a carapace of steel but it can be pierced  … Martha Hyer also impresses as Barbara, the divorced office siren, while Lange is a sympathetic heroine and Brian Aherne is fine as the loathsome Lothario Mr Shalimar. An entertaining romance about whether or not you can have it all which limns the realities of being female – the contemporary detail may be different but the song remains the same. Directed with his customary zest and smooth visual finesse by Jean Negulesco and produced by Jerry Wald.  Author Jaffe – who was a Radcliffe alumnus working at Fawcett Publishing in NYC when the book came out – appears briefly as an office pool stenographer. She graduated to writing extraordinary culture pieces at Cosmopolitan and enjoyed huge success with her subsequent books. I’m so ashamed. Now I’m just somebody who’s had an affair

Under the Cherry Moon (1986)

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The more you drink, the better I sound. Gigolo cousins Christopher Tracy (Prince) and  Tricky (Jerome Benton) swindle wealthy French women as they pursue musical careers on the Riviera. The situation gets complicated when Christopher falls in love with heiress Mary Sharon (Kristin Scott Thomas) after planning to swindle her when he finds out that she inherits a $50 million trust fund on her 21st birthday. Mary’s shipping magnate father Isaac (Steven Berkoff) disapproves of the romance and proves a difficult adversary. Meanwhile, Christopher rivals Tricky for Mary’s affections…  I want a girl who’s smart, a girl who can teach me things. I hate stupid women. You know why? You marry a stupid girl, you have stupid kids. You don’t believe me? Follow a stupid kid home and see if somebody stupid don’t answer the door. Nutty, silly, completely nonsensical and entertaining in ways that somehow seem very Eighties – it could only be the work of that great musical genius, Prince. With highly demonstrative acting that is straight out of the silent era, a debut by Scott Thomas, a nod to the Beatles’ movies in the casting of Victor Spinetti, and a raft of extraordinary music, this notoriously earned a hoard of Golden Raspberries while being labelled a Vanity Project but is all about romance and the kind of class zaniness directly attributable to Thirties screwball. Analysing performance in such a deliberately OTT eye-rolling production is beside the point. It’s all about pastiche and homage and is as fluffy and adorable as a kitten with daft dialogue and a game cast whose collective tongue is firmly in cheek. Originally Mary Lambert was set to direct but Prince took over those duties, crediting her as creative consultant.  Written by Becky Johnston; with classic songs by Prince and the Revolution and orchestration by Clare Fischer. Total fun.  I do nothing professionally, I do everything for fun

Rocketman (2019)

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You have to kill the person you were meant to be in order to become the person you want to be. A troubled Elton John (Taron Egerton) flounces offstage in full costume to attend an Alcoholics’ Anonymous meeting in 1990 to finally tackle his prodigious appetite for drink, drugs, sex, food and shopping. We revisit his life in flashbacks to his lonely childhood in post-war suburban Middlesex as Reggie Dwight with a desperately mismatched mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and a grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones) who encourages the young prodigy. He plays with a band called Bluesology supporting visiting US acts and gets picked up by A&R man Ray Williams (Charlie Rowe) to write for producer Dick James (Stephen Graham) and is teamed with teenage lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) whose words spark an astonishing array of songs in the young composer. They are sent to premiere the renamed ‘Elton John’ to perform at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles where he literally takes off overnight but the pressures of performing and an encounter with personal manager John Reid (Richard Madden) leads to a life of unhappiness and addiction … Do you know how disappointing it is to be your mother? The Elton John biopic that has been in the work for decades finally hits the ground running trailing tantrums, tiaras and all the sequinned flamboyance that the man has on his rider. It’s more than a jukebox musical – it’s a freewheeling fantasy that uses some of the best songs John and Taupin have written to explore the astronomical fame that exploded when they went to the US as soon as they created Your Song. Lee Hall’s script is sometimes too on the nose (if you show you don’t also tell, natch) but for the most part director Dexter Fletcher’s approach is wildly inventive, epic and oddly appropriate even when the time-travelling back and forth is anachronistic in terms of the songs themselves so it might confuse those expecting a more logical biography. It bucks convention and Fletcher has clearly watched the oeuvre of Ken Russell (appropriately enough considering John’s role in Tommy, referenced here), understanding fundamentally the possibilities of narrative playfulness, the sung-through sub-genre and of course the necessities of the backstage form. As brilliantly evoked as the concerts are, the high points take place in a livingroom in Pinner. The monstrousness of his parents is to the fore even if we don’t get into the horrors of his mother hiring an Elton John tribute act to appear at her 90th birthday party since the 1990 addiction therapy is as far as it goes chronologically.  The children who play the young Reggie should get a big shoutout because they are quite extraordinary – Matthew Illesley and especially Kit Connor – and there is a nice touch for Irish viewers with The Stripes (the band that got away from John’s record company and split last year, sob) appearing as members of Bluesology, the group he had before his breakthrough. Egerton lacks the nuance for tragedy but he has some fantastic moments principally as the beloved stage performer:  perhaps that’s enough – those lows are sequenced well in montages and anything resembling the sordid reality might be too tough for this high wire act to bear. Dramatically though it’s the relationships John has with Taupin and his grandmother that make the emotions land. Tate Donovan revels in his outrageousness as Doug Weston, the proprietor of LA’s Troubadour;  while Madden is a horror as the man who took John to the cleaners and stole his heart. Quite the morality tale in terms of his excesses (we never get to see him actually enjoy all those drugs) but the sheer wit and imagination on display is peculiarly apt when it comes to amplifying the content of all those great songs. A delightful evening at the cinema that simply bursts with all the zest a musical can muster and much better than Fletcher’s job on Bohemian Rhapsody but somehow it’s a tad less enjoyable. Go figure. Oh, just write the fucking songs, Bernie. Let me handle the rest!

Bonjour Tristesse (1958)

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It’s getting out of control. I just wish I were a lot older or a lot younger. Designer Anne (Deborah Kerr) travels to the French Riviera to visit her old lover Raymond (David Niven), the wealthy playboy husband of her recently deceased friend. His pampered seventeen-year old daughter, Cecile (Jean Seberg), afraid that the rather prim Anne’s presence may alter their hedonistic lifestyle, attempts to drive a wedge between the woman and her father, with the help of his latest French mistress Elsa (Mylène Demongeot) when Raymond proposes marriage to Anne.  Little do they know that Anne’s proper attitude hides a fragility that could lead to tragic consequences and when they set their plot in motion everything begins to come undone ... She’s prim, and prissy, and a prude. And a know it all. And I hate her! This adaptation of Françoise Sagan’s slim but shocking bestseller by Arthur Laurents has lost none of its power. The father-daughter double act beautifully played by Niven and Seberg has the sense of perversion and decadence that twists the material’s bittersweet threads into something that still raises eyebrows:  incest, perhaps? Producer/director Svengali Otto Preminger once again subjects his famous young Saint Joan protegée to a kind of trial of inquiry – this time for her libertinism – in a flavoursome morality tale that delineates corruption with admirable precision as the pieces are moved into place.  Stunningly imagined in widescreen, in both monochrome and colour, by cinematographer Georges Périnal, with a classic score by Georges Auric and that legendary title song, performed by Juliette Gréco. The poster is of course the work of Saul Bass. Beautiful, scandalous and compelling, this is where the Nouvelle Vague begins. Anne had made me look at myself for the first time in my life. And that turned me against her – dead against her

Jeune et Jolie (2013)

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You have an adventure but ultimately you’re alone. Seventeen-year old Isabelle (Marine Vacth) decides to lose her virginity to Felix (Lucas Prisor) while on summer holiday. But she wants more sex and takes up a secret life as a prostitute, having encounters in hotels with older men, some more sordid and cruel than others. She meets elderly Georges (Johan Leysen) regularly but he dies during one bout and the police inform her mother (Géraldine Pailhas) about her underage daughter’s dangerous lifestyle …  She’s bad to the bone. This frank exploration of female sexuality by auteur François Ozon pulls its punches somewhat – being on the one hand an erotic drama; the other, a piquant coming of age story with an especially feminine twist albeit through the male gaze, until the tables turn. It lacks the acerbic wit of the mordant thrillers Ozon makes but there is a marvellous change in the bourgeois family dynamic when this beautiful girl asserts her female power. Who knows why a lovely girl would do this? Does she know herself? We are left with no clear idea but this boasts a kindness towards the protagonist, emblemised by the use of the poem No One’s Serious at Seventeen by Rimbaud and a soundtrack dominated by the songs of Françoise Hardy. The film ends on a mysterious smile worthy of the Mona Lisa herself. You know what they say – once a whore, always a whore

Kinsey (2004)

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Are my answers typical? Professor Alfred ‘Prok’ Kinsey (Liam Neeson) is interviewed about his sexual history by one of his graduate students Clyde Martin (Sarsgaard) and reflects on how he became the author of famous studies of modern Americans’ sexual behaviour. He grew up in a repressed household headed by Alfred Seguine Kinsey (John Lithgow) and disobeyed him to study biology and became a lecturer, marrying his student Mac (Laura Linney). After completing his study of gall wasp behaviour and addressing the sexual issues within his own marriage his advice is sought by students and he begins teaching a sex ed course that raises questions he cannot answer.  He devises a questionnaire to find out what passes for normal activity among his students but soon realises that 100 completed documents are not remotely sufficient.  He commences a countrywide research project in which he taxonomises sexual behaviour inside and outside average marriages and subgroups like homosexuals at a time when all these things are illegal in several states … The forces of chastity are massing again. Writer/director Bill Condon’s biography of the famed sex researcher whose reports rocked midcentury America is careful, detailed and filled with good performances (appropriately). Both Linney and Neeson contribute complete characters and their respective realisation that Clyde wants to seduce Prok are extremely touching and when you consider it’s established in a phonecall it’s all the more affecting. Their marriage is a profile of the parameters of this study – until things become more extreme and the grad students carrying out the research offer their own services to be recorded. The issue of agreed infidelity and extra-marital sex is just one of the common behavioural tics dealt with here and deftly personalised. There are of course some limits to even these sexologists’ tolerance – and Pomeroy (Chris O’Donnell) storms out when a particularly noxious individual (William Sadler) decides to regale him and Kinsey about his incest, bestiality and more, including incidents with pre-adolescent children. There are some abusive perversions that are just too tough to take. Word about the nature of the team’s methodologies gets out and their funding is cut by the Rockefeller Foundation, an issue that is particularly effective as a narrative device because it reminds us of the real-world difficulties in securing funding and the consequences that not funding this particular study might have had – its far-reaching insights into human behaviour in a highly censorious era was groundbreaking.  Oliver Platt is particularly good as the genial Herman Wells, President of the University at Bloomington whose support of the controversial work is so important. The confrontational nature of the film doesn’t descend to pornography chiefly because the humanity of the protagonists – and that of the study’s participants – is carefully graphed against the social norms. The topper to Alfred Senior’s difficult relationship with his son is very sad and crystallises the reasons behind his bullying, a habit Prock has inherited and replays with his own son Bruce (Luke MacFarlane) over mealtimes. At this point we don’t need any lectures on nature versus nurture or gene theory. The coda is a wonderful exchange between Kinsey and his latest interview subject played by Lynn Redgrave. It’s a marvellous conclusion to a remarkable film that deals with biology, family and the life force. A very satisfying experience. Where love is concerned we’re all in the dark

The Equalizer 2 (2018)

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A piece of advice: always be nice to anyone who has access to your toothbrush.  Retired elusive ex-CIA operative, widower Robert McCall (Denzel Washington), is whiling away his time driving a taxi and delivering vigilante justice on behalf of neighbours and customers in Boston. However his past cuts close to home when thugs kill Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo) – his best friend and former colleague. Now out for revenge, McCall has to take on a crew of highly trained assassins who’ll stop at nothing to destroy him and he suspects their leader is a former colleague…  There are no good or bad people any more. No enemies. Just unfortunates. Per the law of diminishing returns, the more of these actioners Washington makes the less effective he becomes as a leading man, doesn’t he? In the first of these films, adapted from the Edward Woodward TV series, he was outshone by the astonishing Marton Csokas, who was the villain par excellence, albeit for obvious reasons he’s not back here. McCall is still working out his grief by helping out anyone he can like some kind of Fury or ninja empath. You’ll spot the troublemaker a mile off and the final shootout is inevitable and tedious. Director Antoine Fuqua has now made sadism a part of his aesthetic brand without any especially redeeming features other than the resolution of an underdeveloped subplot – care home resident Orson Bean trying to find a painting stolen from his family by the Nazis, a line of narrative mirrored in the aspiring artist who McCall is trying to direct back to the straight and narrow starting with remaking a piece of Islamic street art. Written by Richard Wenk. You died